Carolina first left the Gaza Strip to study journalism in Toronto. At age 20, she arrived newly pregnant and, as a result, lost her scholarship—though not her valuable student visa. Without educational opportunity, she eventually went back home.

Carolina returned to Canada this March. This time, with a toddler in tow and another on the way, her travels included hungry hours on a hot bus and repeated attempts to cross the border into Egypt, where she and her child finally boarded a 12-hour flight to North America.

Carolina was fleeing hopelessness for the sliver of light that is this New World.

“In Gaza, there is no work. There is no dignity. Any day, you can die.” She pauses. “But it is difficult here. Very difficult.” Her immigration status hangs in the balance. She cannot know when—or if—her husband will join her.

Like the stories of the millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Nigeria, Carolina’s story is the Christmas story, although not in the ways we usually think. The immutable “I AM that I AM” entered a womb and took up a body. But these were not his only vulnerable acts. Jesus of Nazareth also claimed an earthly home, which, as Carolina and many others know, is less a promise of permanence and more a risk of grief. When mobility, death, divorce, ecological crisis, and war reign, there is nothing certain in life, not least a home.

“To have a home is to become vulnerable,” writes James Wood in an essay for The London Review of Books. “Not just to the attacks of others, but to our own adventures in alienation.” Wood recalls that the battle prowess of the Scythians was often attributed to the fact that they were nomads, without a home. Because “they carry their houses with them and shoot with bows from horseback,” Wood writes, they were invincible, leaving behind no settlements for enemies to attack. Without a home, one has less to lose. With a home, happiness is the rug that can be jerked, without warning, from under our feet.

But we are hardwired for home and for the refuge it promises. The Creation narrative introduces a home-making, home-keeping God, who lays a feast and welcomes guests. Twice in Genesis 2, we hear that God “puts” Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The second time, Scripture doesn’t use the common term for “put” (like putting our shoes in the closet), but instead uses a word that connotes rest and safety. They are put in the Garden in the same way God put Lot outside the city before he rained sulfur and fire on Sodom (Gen. 19:16), that he put the Israelites in the Promised Land as a gift of rest (Deut. 3:20; 12:10; 25:19).

This Hebrew word for put can also refer to something dedicated to God, like the manna that was “put” in the ark of the covenant. Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer suggests that the author of Genesis intends both meanings in verse 15: “The man was ‘put’ into the Garden where he could ‘rest’ and be ‘safe,’ and the man was ‘put’ into the Garden ‘in God’s presence’ where he could have fellowship with God.”

Our first human parents were given a home and invited to sit and stay awhile. But they, and we, have chosen rebellion. So the drama of life unfolds not at home, but in exile. “Home is the mouth of a shark,” writes Warsan Shire, a Somali poet. “Home is the barrel of the gun / and no one would leave home / unless home chased you to the shore.” Because of sin, we are all on foot now. To be human is to be homesick, longing for paradise lost.

Christmas is a time when many families return home, buoyed by starry expectation for the transcendent meaning we are supposed to be finding around our tables. But our celebrations, good in their own right, do not ultimately sate our longing for home. Even in Middle America, the specter of exile haunts the human experience.

Christmas reminds us that the riskiest business of the Incarnation wasn’t ultimately the manger but the cross. God exiled his own Son in order to restore home to the sinner, the sinner to home. And because the longing for home is the ache of every human heart, the good news is as deliciously true as Jesus told it in Luke 15: Once upon a time, there was a patient father with two rebellious sons. One came home, and a feast was laid.

Salvation, as homecoming. Forgiveness, as eternal feast. Welcome home.

Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want (InterVarsity), CT's 2015 book of the year. She is currently writing a book about home.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.